And the Gadgets Shall Lead Us?

By the time you read this in early 2010, I may actually know what I am talking about in the column you are about to read, which I am writing well before the 2009 holidays.

That is, the 2009 shopping season will give the electronic publishing world its first indication of how consumers, schools, and businesses regard the wave of e-reader devices about to assault them. In addition to the familiar Kindle, we have units from Sony, Plastic Logic, Spring Design, E Ink Corp., and Barnes & Noble. Even before the technology's market appeal has been proven, we have so much clutter that some companies such as Plastic Logic are trying to parse a nonexistent audience by targeting the business subsegment. When Apple releases its rumored tablet, some feel it may aim more toward the education market.

Market? What market is that? Amazon won't even tell us exactly how many Kindles it has sold. All we get from the company are these weird ancillary numbers such as the percentage of books it now sells in ebook format-as if this is a reliable proxy for actual device sales. Pardon my skepticism, but I have played this game before. After years of covering the digital device market (anyone recall the Franklin Covey Reader?), I am a bit shocked to see the anticipation and hope many publishers are pinning on a class of hardware that has never enjoyed serious traction with any but the most narrow niches.

Now, defenders say, the technology, the price, the eagerness of publishers, and consumers' embrace of mobility all will drive a new market for portable reading devices. One consultancy, mediaIDEAS, is making the bold prediction that the 1.1 million E Ink readers it says were sold in 2008 will escalate to 6 million in 2010. But it sees the real momentum kicking in after 2012, when the rigid, muddy monochrome E Ink displays of today start evolving into flexible (even foldable) color units with larger formats that can accommodate newspaper and magazine layout and design. Meanwhile, prices will plummet from the $250 that is typical now to $50-$60 by the end of the decade. In fact, by 2020, the researchers project e-reader annual sales of 446 million units globally. By then, virtually every kind of printed content we now know will be available in this portable, digital, always connected form, mediaIDEAS predicts.

Well, anything is possible, I guess. There is no doubt that E Ink screens will improve beyond their current (terrible) state; at that point there may be a realistic chance that the college textbook market and business markets will come on board. I am more optimistic about the viability of these segments because this is where the actual users have something to gain from digital content distributed over portable devices. Digital distribution for textbooks and office materials demonstrably saves money and adds substantial convenience. Given the cost, the waste, and the sheer weight of hard copy textbooks and office paper, students and businesses would have to be crazy not to replace all of it with a dedicated reading device-if (if, mind you) the technology really can handle the color media and illustration detail needed to render a range of technical materials at a reasonable cost.

The problem with e-readers is that once you take them out of the college and business contexts, the use cases dwindle, and the benefit veers more toward the publisher than the consumer. If magazine and newspaper readers want a portable content experience, they already have one-a newspaper and a magazine. Most people are carrying a cell phone and/or a laptop PC. What is the rationale for a third in-between device? Consumers are fleeing books and newspapers because they are reading less or getting the content online, not because they are craving a handheld digital version of an experience that just isn't as interesting to them anymore. Magazine circulation actually has risen in this century. It is the advertiser leaving this medium, not the audience.

Given these real market conditions, what compelling need do digital devices meet? In truth, the industry is excited about digital readers because they serve publishers' needs and interests. Let's not kid ourselves into believing that e-readers have compelling advantages outside of the book-lover niche. Cell phones already give us optimal portability and connectivity-plus color, video, and sound. A dedicated in-between device is not going to impress anyone with repurposed material. Don't look to technology to change the market. Ultimately, the content has to re-imagine itself so that a new technology really is worth having.